REVIEW: SyFy’s “Resident Alien” Never Manages to Take Off

Who doesn’t love a good fish out of water comedy? There’s just so much joy to be mined out of watching a character from one environment have to navigate the ins and the outs of a totally new and alien environment. This trope is especially successful in sci-fi settings, where either a human has to adapt to an alien culture or vice versa. It’s this trope that first attracted me to SyFy’s Resident Alien, a TV adaptation of the Dark Horse Comics series of the same name. Here, Alan Tudyk plays an alien who’s crash-landed in a small Colorado town and is forced to blend in with the local townsfolk as a quirky doctor, Harry Vanderspeigle, while searching for the remnants of his ship and the device he intends to use to destroy the world. It’s one of those premises that seems destined to become a classic sci-fi fish out of water story. Unfortunately, Resident Alien never quite manages to take off in its first seven episodes. It’s not a bad show, just a wildly uneven one. Its plot is unfocused, it struggles to balance its comedy with its drama, and many of the characters feel underdeveloped, at best, and paper thin and annoying, at worst. There’s plenty of potential here, but there’s a lot of work to be done before this show is as good as its premise is. (3 out of 5 wands.)

NOTE: This review is based off of the first seven episodes. It will be as spoiler free as possible.

Resident Alien (created by Chris Sheridan)
Based on the Dark Horse comic, SYFY’s RESIDENT ALIEN follows Harry, an alien played by Alan Tudyk that crash lands on Earth and passes himself off as a small-town human doctor. Arriving with a secret mission to kill all humans, Harry starts off living a simple life… but things get a bit rocky when he’s roped into solving a local murder and realizes he needs to assimilate into his new world. As he does so, he begins to wrestle with the moral dilemma of his mission and asking the big life questions like: “Are human beings worth saving?” and “Why do they fold their pizza before eating it?”

For the first few episodes, Alan Tudyk is pretty much the only thing that keeps Resident Alien afloat. Surrounded by familiar plotlines, archetypal characters, and an array of sci-fi tropes, Alan Tudyk’s portrayal of Harry feels unique. Sure, he’s leaning hard into broad, physical comedy and he’s sometimes painfully awkward to watch, but Tudyk’s energy is kinetic and captivating. On the surface, Harry is like any number of other aliens you’ve seen in stories. He’s come to earth on a mission to destroy it—but something goes horribly wrong. His space crash lands outside of Patience, Colorado, and he quickly murders the real Harry Vanderspeigle, taking his identity as he searches for the remains of his ship. Throughout the season, the alien will slowly learn what it means to be human (from observing our TV shows, like Law and Order, to slowly acclimating to life among the small-town residents of Patience, Colorado). Harry’s arc is a predictable one, but Tudyk gives it life. He’s able to perfectly balance the alien’s more sinister, murderous side with the more awkward, humorous façade he shows the townsfolk. Ironically, the fish out of water aspect might be the least successful part of Harry’s characterization. It may be the saving grace of the pilot episode, but the longer it goes on, and the more awkward and crude the show’s writers allow the comedy to get, the less enjoyable it is. To be clear, I like Tudyk’s portrayal a lot, but it becomes a bit grating after a while. It’s enormously difficult to believe that nobody in the town has any suspicions of him, given how strange and awkward he acts. Yeah, I guess they could just be assuming he lacks any and all social cues, but their complete ignorance and lack of suspicion of him feel unbelievable and distracting. Luckily, as the show progresses, Resident Alien’s supporting cast becomes more interesting and picks up some of the slack left by Harry’s diminishing comedic charm. 

Resident Alien has the kind of naturalistic diversity that every show should strive to have. There are named Native American, Muslim, and Black characters, all of whom have relatively developed plots that factor into the series’ overarching narrative in essential ways—more or less. In the pilot, none of the human characters make much of an impression. Mike Thompson (Corey Reynolds), Patience’s sheriff, is crass, annoying, and frequently demeans his deputy, Liv (Elizabeth Bowen); the town’s mayor, Ben Hawthorne (Levi Fiehler) is about as bland as you’d expect the mayor of a town in the middle of nowhere to be; Harry’s coworker, Asta Twelvetrees (Sara Tomko), shows the most promise as she goes toe-to-toe with Harry, confronting him on his weirder traits and making for a nice comedic foil. Many of these characters develop more interesting traits and plotlines as the show goes on, resulting in them feeling a lot more three dimensional than they first appear—though some, like Sheriff Thompson, remain as annoying and undeveloped in all of the episodes that were available for preview. The ensemble was a bit of a drag at first, but they quickly ended up becoming a huge reason I was enjoying the show. As Harry became more annoying, checking in with the other residents of Patience became more fulfilling. While the show tries to spend an equal amount of time on its ensemble of characters, much focus is spent on Asta, with elements of her past creeping into the edges of her everyday life and it’s fair to say that Asta becomes a co-lead as the show goes on. Though her narrative sometimes feels soap opera-ish, it is often more interesting than Harry’s seemingly-stagnant narrative and I enjoyed getting to delve into Asta’s life—visiting her family on a local Native American reservation, seeing the ways her past is haunting her present, etc. As Harry’s plotline began to annoy me, Asta’s plotline kept me watching the show.

As for Resident Alien’s plot—it’s a bit of an unfocused mess. Resident Alien is one of those shows with so much going on that it feels like it never manages to go much of anywhere. Ostensibly, the show is about Harry trying to fit in with the humans of Patience, Colorado, while he finds the remnants of his crashed spaceship—including the doomsday device he intends to use to destroy the earth—so he can carry out his mission and depart the earth. This, however, is quickly thrust into the background as the everyday minutiae of life in Patience takes over. Harry is brought into the town’s folds after their former doctor, Sam, is seemingly-murdered. That hint of a murder mystery is what drives much of the pilot’s mystique, but it also never goes much of anywhere and fades into the background. These plotlines should’ve been the driving force behind Resident Alien—they’re what’s featured most in its ad campaign and they’re the ones that appear the most interesting. However, the show routinely ignores them and, instead, embraces its soap opera tendencies by exploring Asta’s past and leaning into Harry’s romantic comedy of errors—including a tryst with D’Arcy (Alice Wetterlund), a local barkeep and close friend of Asta. These soap opera-esque diversions are simultaneously more interesting than either the murder mystery or Harry’s plotline while also annoyingly taking time away from those plotlines, hindering their ability to develop into something worth exploring.

Perhaps the most interesting (and infuriating) plotline is Harry’s standoff with Max (Judah Prehn), Mayor Hawthorne’s son. Max is the only person in town who can see that Harry is an alien. He frequently tries to convince his parents and the other townsfolk of Harry’s extraterrestrial origins, but nobody else believes him. It’s a very cliched plotline and one that starts dragging down the show’s momentum after a while. But it’s one of the only plotlines that seem to go anywhere, with numerous wrinkles complicating Max and Harry’s antagonistic relationship along the way. It’s also one of the few times we get to see Tudyk’s Harry acting as alien as he is, which ends up being a breath of fresh air as his trying-to-be-human shtick grows staler and staler with each passing episode. I feared the entire season would be taken up by this plotline, with Max endlessly trying to convince others that Harry is an alien and no progress being made, positive or negative. But the show actually managed to surprise me with where it took this plotline, and I’m glad they went the direction they did with it as it ends up being far more interesting than it initially appears.

It’s not all bad, though. While the plot may be an unfocused mess, Resident Alien is a good looking show with a stellar cast. I’m not 100% sure where it’s shot—I’m assuming it’s somewhere in Canada—but wherever it’s shot, the show is taking advantage of the local scenery. Patience feels like a small town. It’s perpetually covered in snow, with buildings that feel old and lived in. It feels like a real place, and that sense of grounded reality helps give the show an air of believability even as Alan Tudyk walks around the town, unconvincingly blending in with the other humans. On the subject of Alan Tudyk’s alien, the VFX on him are superb. I’m not entirely sure if the alien is all CGI or a mixture of CGI and prosthetic makeup, but either way, the design is stellar. Harry’s alien form is kind of scary—but in a funny way. The show mines plenty of comedic beats from seeing this weird alien doing mundane human things, like trying on a cowboy hat. It seems clear that quite a bit of money was spent on Harry’s alien design, and it definitely paid off. The cast all do a stellar job, regardless of whether or not they’re given much to do. There’s no weak link here and it’s impressive how well everyone manages to gel with each other. You might expect Tudyk to completely steal the show, and he does at first, but as time goes on and the rest of the cast fill out their shoes, they end up shining in their own ways. A lesser cast would’ve resulted in this show completely crashing and burning, but everyone here does an excellent job—with Tomko, Prehn, and Wetterlund being the immediate standouts.

I hesitate to write Resident Alien off completely. There’s a lot of promise in these seven episodes, even if the show never manages to find a groove. The premise is great, it just needs to be explored more. The cast are all wildly talented, managing to carry the show even when the writing doesn’t quite gel. The humor is hit or miss, but when it lands, it lands. Many of the subplots are fascinating, the show just needs to do a better job of focusing on them and expanding upon them. All of the characters are slowly getting more developed and more enjoyable. The CGI and other VFX are surprisingly good for a basic cable show. All of the elements are here, the show just needs to focus on them and find a better way of balancing all of its sensibilities. The pilot is rough, but the show manages to improve upon itself over the six episodes that follow it, proving that it’s worth giving the show a chance. I’m not entirely sure the show is anywhere close to fully realizing its potential, but I think there’s every possibility it could come together and coalesce into something special. As it is, I can’t fully recommend it. If you adore this kind of show or are a huge fan of Alan Tudyk, it’s worth a watch provided you keep in mind that the pilot isn’t a great showcase of the show’s quality. As a piece of serialized science fiction? It needs some work but I’m hoping it manages to pull it off because there’s quite a bit here that I liked. It’s worth a shot, though. There are certainly worse ways to spend a Wednesday night.

3 out of 5 wands.

Resident Alien airs Wednesdays at 10pm on SyFy.

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